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Changes need to be made to Social Security, the popular and necessary federal program that provides a vital source of income to millions of retired Americans.
Without changes, the program is projected to be short of the money needed to cover all benefits in a decade.
All options to restore financial stability to the program — including consideration of benefits changes and ways to bring more money into the system — need to be on the table. But proposals to raise the age when people can get full Social Security benefits should be low down on that list.
A multipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Angus King, has taken on the difficult — and thankless — task of looking for ways to revamp the program so it can remain viable. They deserve kudos for doing this difficult work — and for facing criticism for any fixes they consider.
First, let’s keep this “crisis” in perspective. Social Security is not projected to run out of money by 2033. Its trust fund, which covers a portion of benefits, is. The Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund was created in 1939 to hold and invest funds not needed to cover current Social Security benefits. Social Security retirement benefits are primarily covered by payroll taxes, which are split between employees and employers. These taxes now cover about three-quarters of Social Security retirement benefits. Withdrawals from the trust fund cover the remainder. So if the trust fund were to be depleted, benefits would have to be cut.
More money is coming from the trust fund as the country’s birth rate has declined and the large baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. The number of people working for each person who has retired has dropped significantly since the program started. In 1960, for example, there were more than five workers for each Social Security retiree. Today, that number is less than three.
There are many ways to fix this problem, on both sides of the ledger. In other words, expenditures from the trust fund could be reduced, through benefits cuts, and more money could go into the trust fund, through higher payroll tax collections.
Last week, it was reported that the Senate group was, among many options, talking about raising the retirement age to 70. Currently, workers can retire at 62 and collect some benefits, but most must wait until 67 to get full benefits.
Raising the Social Security retirement age would likely harm many working-class Americans. The average life expectancy in America has dropped in recent years. For Indigenous Americans it is well below 70, and for Black Americans, it is barely 71. This means that many of these people would die before collecting Social Security benefits if the full retirement age is raised to 70.
Life expectancy is also significantly lower for low-income Americans and those with more rigorous, demanding jobs. These are the people who most need the help that Social Security offers, so protecting them from any potential benefits cuts should be a priority.
On the other side of the ledger, Social Security could collect more money. Social Security payroll taxes are capped at $160,000 a year. That means no Social Security taxes are collected on wage income above that level.
Eliminating this cap and assessing the current Social Security tax, which totals 12.4 percent, on all earnings would keep the trust fund viable until about 2070.
Politically, this would likely be billed as a tax increase, but having high earners pay more to support Social Security would have broad benefits.
The senators looking for ways to shore up Social Security are doing difficult work. But they have time to ensure that any fixes are the right ones, and that they don’t unnecessarily harm the workers who most need the benefits that Social Security provides.